PARIS -- Hard to believe now, but it wasn't long ago Juan Martin del Potro wanted to walk away from tennis. For good. He had four wrist surgeries -- three to his left and one to his right. The first two, in 2014 and 2015, did not work, and he questioned whether the pain, physical and emotional, was worth it.
For a reason even del Potro cannot explain, he decided to stick with it. The third operation, also in 2015, was a success, and since returning to the tour in March 2016, he has painstakingly worked on improving the strength in his left wrist, restoring his backhand from a one-handed slice back into the two-hander that was once as solid as his thunderous forehand.
Both shots were on full display Thursday at the French Open, where del Potro advanced to the semifinals by overcoming No. 3 Marin Cilic, 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-3, 7-5. Resuming at 5-5 in the first-set tiebreaker after the rain halted play the previous night, del Potro hit 19 aces and served beautifully under pressure.
When Cilic's final forehand flew wide, del Potro stood legs wide apart, arms aloft, soaking in the crowd that appreciated the effort not just of the match, but of the resolve.
"Everybody knows that I was close to quitting this sport two years ago," del Potro said later in press. "But then I, for one reason, I never give up. And I have been trying and trying every day to fix my problem in my wrist. And in the end, I got it, and now I'm having a great present, looking forward for the future."
Always popular in Argentina and the legions of fans from that country who follow the tennis circuit, del Potro's story of hard luck, resilience and finally, success, has resonated with our hearts. Aside from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who are in a league of their own when it comes to fan stardom, no one else is more popular.
There is no doubt, too, that the goodwill from the fans he encounters week in week out has helped him get back to a good place. Amazingly, nine years had passed since he made his first French Open semifinal. Although he lost, the run set off a string of strong play that led him to his first (and only) Grand Slam title, at the 2009 US Open.
The injuries had long dominated discussion about del Potro since he came. But in March he won Indian Wells, his first Masters 1000 title -- a result that saw him leap back into the top five. His mental strength has been remarkable, but now it seems he is physically close to 100 percent again, he is looking only to the future.
"Of course, I didn't expect to be in the top five again, to reach the semifinals at the big tournament after all my injuries," del Potro said. "But now it's time to talk about my present in a good way. I think all the tougher moments of my life are completely in the past, and I'm enjoying a lot this present."
Tennis missed del Potro almost as much as he missed it. His forehand is one of the real weapons of the men's game, a rare example of something that draws gasps of awe from the crowd every time he winds up and unleashes.
Earlier this year, del Potro put his relative lack of success on clay down to the fact that he "doesn't like running." Unfortunately for him, he might have to do a lot of running Friday when he plays Rafael Nadal, the 10-time champion at Roland Garros and a man who has lost just twice at the French Open since he first walked through the gates in 2005.
Back in 2009, it was Federer who stopped del Potro in Paris. Now he will have to go through Nadal.
"I thought that after nine years I [would] play [someone] different, not Rafa or Roger," del Potro said, with a smile. "But all my semifinals in Grand Slam was against them. The last one in US Open I lost against Rafa. In Wimbledon, I lost against [Novak] Djokovic. Here with Federer. After 10 years, they are [still] fighting to win these kind of tournaments. It's amazing for the tennis world."
Even more amazing if del Potro can run through Rafa and on his way to the trophy.